Growing up, many of us were taught that sharing is caring. We were expected to indulge requests because it showed we care.
We’re (mostly) past the days of safety scissors and glue sticks, though—where we’re going, we won’t need those things. Right now, you or I may be confronting a point—an intersection of two distinct avenues of maturation—of whether we become or remain “yes” men or if, perhaps for the first time, we buck the trend of being pushovers and think about No. 1.
At its purist, basest form, learning to say “no” is about attaining goals. Even if a person is eternally pledged to help others, it’s still a goal. While the Internet is brimming with advice about how to become a go-getter, become a goal-oriented person, or a success story, what these lists actually do—aside from normalizing words like “achievement” to the point that even blinking is considered a monumental occasion—is glaze over what happens between creating the list of goals and hopefully, just hopefully, checking off the box next to the final item.
Achievement necessitates a graceful marriage of assertiveness and fearlessness. It just so happens learning to say both yes and no at the right moment embodies these things.
At its very core, though, saying no is a refusal. Indeed, “no” has begun to possess a connotation attached to it that makes its very usage seem insulting. Why say “no” when you can just not call back, not RSVP, have sudden extraordinary circumstances appear as if by magic, or just say you never got the message?
Because we’re adults, and adults are expected to take responsibility for ourselves. Besides, saying “no” puts everything to rest. We aren’t forced to make excuses to back up the first one, we’ll be stand-up guys and it cuts down on stress.
“Like everything in life, any time you take anything to an extreme—either you say “yes” to everything or “no” to everything—you're going to be in a position that's often untenable and often unhealthy,” says Dr. Nancy Elder, an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine. Elder works in stress management and mental health, is a real doctor, and is infinitely wiser than WebMD.
We can get stressed out by nearly everything on the planet: money, women, money, personal problems, money, etc. The largest, however, may be the actual drive to become successful. A work hard and ye shall be rewarded kind of thing. It’s tough to work hard when you have extraneous obligations getting in the way of your main goal, though.
That’s not to say responding “no” to everything the second someone asks you to do something is the correct choice either. Like having the correct type of manners, it comes down to being conscientious in your decisions.
“The most important thing that people who [say yes or no] well is to temporize,” Elder says. “It's important to acknowledge the request. ‘Yes I hear you asking this. Yes I hear you asking to put this on my plate,' then saying, ‘Give me twenty-four hours to think about this.’”
Elder recommends stepping back and viewing the decision as all-encompassing: A choice effects, potentially, all parts of our daily affairs and simply saying yes or no may interfere with plans we laid beforehand. Think before you speak? Got it.
There’s an old Zen saying that goes like this: “If you chase two rabbits, both will escape.” While I am decidedly antithetically Zen, this has proven to be undeniably true. Keeping focus is one of the hardest things to do, but it’s a necessity to get where you want to be, and the ability to say “no” when you need to is an overlooked, under-appreciated tool able to help us get to that place.
Keeping that in mind, we get to the sunnier, more adventurous part of learning to say yes.
Although Zen is indeed a powerful force in the world, I’d like to think the movie Tommy Boy is just as influential. During the wedding scene, Big Tom makes a sale with the line, “Why say no when it feels so good to say yes?”
Brian Dennehy is all right in the movie, yeah. But that particular scene underscores what saying yes can be: a gamble. In some situations, it’s going all in, pushing the chips of your credibility into the center of the table and waiting for the other guy to show his hand.
It gets the blood flowing. And that’s a good thing.
“If you decide, ‘Gosh, I really don't want to do this—this is outside my area of expertise, but my boss has made a compelling case,’ ” Elder says, “even though you may not want to do it, if you make a conscious decision to say yes and you're OK with it, it'll reduce your stress level.”
It’s about taking on challenges that advance us in some way, whether it’s in the workforce, our personal lives, or just enriching us as people. Learn to thrive under pressure. The only thing to do when the crushing weight of the world is on your shoulders is to stand up, even if it’s slowly, and carry it.
Learning how to say yes effectively is all about creating advantages. We may be the people that do stand up with the weight of the world on our shoulders.
“[If you never say yes] you're going to miss out on exciting opportunities—you're going to put yourself in a little box,” Elder says. “You're going to limit some of the possibilities for your future.”
What it comes down to—well, what everything seems to come down to—is attaining balance. It’s about being ever-conscious about your decisions and never letting your ideal endgame get out of sight…and keeping the path up there as straight as possible.
It’s going to be tough to think of life as chess, but discerning the moves ahead based on the decisions we make in the present is how we win this game. We make risky moves and say yes. We sacrifice lesser pieces and say no to advance our rooks and queens to the other end of the board. But it’s worth it. Checkmate never happens with pawns.